Helen Bradford Thompson Woolley

Researched and written by
:  Donald F. Kneessi

I attest that the following biography is a product of my own original work..


  • She was born in Chicago, Illinois to David Wallace Thompson and Isabella Perkins Thompson on November 6, 1874.  Her father was a shoe manufacturer and her mother a homemaker (Ragsdale, N/D).
  • Helen and her two sisters all attended college. After graduating from Englewood High School she enrolled at the University of Chicago. She received her both her undergraduate degree (1987) and her Ph.D (1900) at the University of Chicago (Ragsdale, ND).
  • Her major professors were James Rowland Angell and John Dewey.  John Dewey called her one of his most brilliant students (Ragsdale, N/D).
  • She was the first experimental test of the Darwinian notion that women were biologically inferior to men.  Back then this notion was considered so obvious that everyone new this for a fact and no research study had to be conducted to prove it (James cited in Schultz & Shultz, 2004).  Wooley decided to do her own experiment and administered a series of test to 25 males and 25 female subjects to measure motor abilities, sensory threshold, intellectual abilities, and personality traits.
  • The results from her research showed no sex differences in emotional functioning and only small non significant differences in intellectual abilities.  Her data also showed that women were slightly superior to men when it came to abilities such as memory and sensory perception.  Woolley took the unprecedented step of attribution these differences to social and environmental factors, the differences in child-rearing practices and expectations for boys and girls; rather than to biological determinants (Rossiter cited in Schultz & Shultz, 2004).
  • In 1903, she published her doctoral dissertation, entitled Psychological Norms in Men and Women, written under the supervision of James Angell (Ragsdale, N/D).
  • When she left the University of Chicago she received a fellowship from the Association of Collegiate Alumnae, to study in Paris and Berlin for a year. She then returned to the U.S. and began teaching at Mount Holyoke College.  In 1902, she became director of its psychological laboratory and professor of psychology (Ragsdale, N/D).
  • As a graduate student she had become engaged to Dr. Paul Gerhardt Woolley at the University of Chicago and in 1905, she left her positions and went to Japan to marry him and then moved to the Philippines to live where he was working. Helen worked for the Philippines Bureau of Education as an experimental psychologist (Ragsdale, N/D).
  • Her husband moved to Bangkok to head a new serum laboratory, she followed him there. In 1907, she became the chief inspector of health (Ragsdale, N/D).
  • Then in1908, she and her husband moved back to the United States, living in Nebraska for a year before settling in Cincinnati.  At the University of Cincinnati, Helen became an instructor of philosophy from 1909-1911.  She fought hard for the causes in which she believed in.  When an African American was not allowed to enter a professional meeting that she was attending, in protest, she lead a group out of the hotel where it was being held. She was a women's rights activist, a member and chairperson at one point of the Ohio Woman Suffrage Association (Ragsdale, N/D).
  • Helen accepted the directorship of the vocation bureau of public school system.  She was concerned with child welfare issues (Ragsdale, N/D).
  • Her research on the effects of child labor led to changes in the states labor laws.  In many states children as young as 8 were working 10 hour shifts 6 days a week in factories.  Few states had protective legislation regarding age, working hours, or minimum wages for children.  In 1921, she served as president of the National vocational guidance association (Schultz & Shultz, 2004)
  • In the same year (1921), she and her husband relocated to Detroit Michigan where she joined the staff of the Merrill-Palmer Institute and established a nursery school program to study child development and mental abilities (Ragsdale, N/D).
  • In 1924, at Columbia University, she became director of the new Institute of Child Welfare Research.  As the new direction she still continued her work on learning in early childhood, vocational education, and school guidance counseling (Ragsdale, N/D).
  • Wolley published her results from her study in the Mental Traits of Sex: An experimental Investigation of the Normal Mind in Men in Woman.  Her results from her study were not well liked by male academic psychologist.  G Stanley Hall accused her of “giving a feminist interpretation of the data” (Hall cited in Schultz & Shultz, 2004).  The reason men were questioning her results was because it was research done by a woman that showed women were not biologically inferior to men.
  • She later wrote two reviews of the growing research literature on the psychology of sex differences for the journal Psychological Bulletin (Schultz & Shultz, 2004).
  • She was able to work as a teacher, researcher, and mentor for female psychologist in the areas of child development and education for thirty years.  When she was forced to retired due to poor health and a nasty divorce, the focus of women’s psychology was passed on to others to work on (Schultz & Shultz, 2004).



Schultz, D. P., & Schultz, S. E. (2004). A History of Modern Psychology.

p. 190-191. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Ragsdale, S. (N/D). Helen Bradford Thompson Woolley. Webster University



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